Shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, his press secretary declared that “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” But as this claim was subsequently researched, it became clear that it was false. When journalists began to press President Trump’s team to explain where their information had come from, his adviser Kellyanne Conway famously explained that while some people may have facts, the press secretary was basing his claim on “alternative facts.”
Facts, and alternative facts.
In these final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, its fascinating to see that once again the debate has centered around this same dialectic. On one hand, there are millions of Americans who believe that this electoral process was clean and fair, and the results truly do reflect the will of the American people. In support of this argument, they will point out that of the 42 lawsuits mounted by the Trump campaign to challenge the results, not one has succeeded. On the other hand, we have millions of Americans who honestly believe that this election was stolen from President Trump. They assert that the largest election fraud in American history has occurred right under our noses.
Evangelical Christians have been particularly vociferous with their assertion that massive fraud and corruption are to blame for the president's defeat. And these are not uneducated, snake-handling, hillbillies. These are people that I know and love, people that I have worked with in Christian ministry. They are university leaders and scholars. Eric Metaxas, the author of highly acclaimed biographies on Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce is an interesting case in point. At a massive Christian rally, he told the crowd “You firmly believe and I firmly believe that Trump actually won and there has been massive fraud. . . So my attitude is like, so, who cares what I can prove in courts? And I’m going to do anything I can to uncover this horror, this evil.”
Facts and alternative facts.
What is it about Christians that make us so willing to embrace the “alternative facts”? My explanation is that some of the greatest strengths of Evangelical and Pentecostal faith can also become our greatest weakness. We walk by faith, not by sight. We believe in miracles, we believe in prophetic words, we believe in a wisdom that is “not of this world”. Throughout history, this willingness to “hope against all hope” and to believe the impossible has resulted in great victories for the church and for the kingdom of God. But at the same time, our propensity to look beyond what others perceive as reality has sometimes led to shame and embarrassment for the people of God. There have been times when that which we so confidently affirm to be true, is in fact wrong.
So how do we know what’s true?
Over the past several months I’ve been reading through the book of Jeremiah, and I’ve discovered therein many lessons that address this question. In Jeremiah’s day (as in ours) there were competing narratives about how to interpret political events. In the 6th century BCE, the looming threat was the expansion of the Babylonian empire. As the Babylonian army toppled city after city, and set its sights upon the city of Jerusalem, there was acute interest within the city walls to know the “word of the Lord” regarding the situation. On one hand, there was a group of prophets who insisted that despite the apparent hopelessness of their situation, YHWH was on the verge on bringing a miraculous deliverance to the people of the city. The prophet Hananiah declared “Thus says the Lord. . . I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all nations within two years” (Jer 28:11). And this is exactly the message that many people in Jerusalem wanted to hear.
On the other hand, Jeremiah had a completely different message. He told the people that it was futile to resist the might of the Babylonians. The wisest thing they could do would be to surrender the city to their enemies and serve Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 27). This doesn’t sound like a very spiritual, hope-filled message. And it’s not surprising that the majority of people in Jerusalem preferred the message of Hananiah over that of Jeremiah.
So if you were a person living in Jerusalem at that time, how would you have known who to believe? Both men claimed to be prophets. Both were saying “Thus says the Lord.” With competing narratives of “facts” over against “alternative facts”, how could you know what’s true?
I see some elements in Jeremiah’s story that might give us some insight.
First, Jeremiah never depended on “alternative facts”. The real “facts” were his friends. This is to say that Jeremiah never tried to persuade people to believe that - despite everything that their eyes could observe - something different was true. Jeremiah’s prophetic task was to explain why events were unfolding as they were. His job was to make the people of Jerusalem face the facts, and share God’s insights as to why this was happening. He was keen to point out that “prophets who had preceded us from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms” (Jer 28:8) Even as his message was not what people wanted to hear, it was a message clearly aligned with the prophets who had gone before him, and it was a message that was supported by what was happening before their eyes.
Now this is not to say that Jeremiah was unwilling to make predictions or prophesies that were counter-intuitive. There were certainly times in his life where God would tell him to do something that didn’t seem to line up with a “natural” perception of the situation. One example is found in Jeremiah 32. The Babylonians were laying siege to Jerusalem, and Jeremiah was locked up in the palace dungeon. At that moment, he thought he received a word from God telling him to buy a piece of property. This would be odd advice for a man imprisoned in a city that (by his own prediction) was about to be destroyed. Consequently Jeremiah held onto this word “loosely”. But then – seemingly out of the blue - a cousin came to see him in prison, asking him if he wanted to buy a field. Up until this time, he had been unsure. But once the facts brought confirmation, he could say “Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.” (Jer 32:9)
The revelation Jeremiah received in this case was not “alternative facts”. It was the prediction of something that seemed unlikely, even miraculous. Jeremiah wasn’t a “doubter” because he held onto that vision loosely. He was wise. It was only when the facts supported his premonition that he could say, with certainty, that God had spoken to him.
What we see here is that, in the Bible, the authority of a prophet is not established by his mere willingness to defy reality and challenge the facts. To the contrary, the authority of a true prophet is established when the words he declares come true. “When the words of a prophet come to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet” (Jer 28:9)
So what’s the lesson for us? First, I would say that we need to get the facts, trust the facts and love the facts. Now to be sure we don’t just believe everything we hear. Getting the facts is a process. I’m an academic. I understand how this works. Its OK to question the data, the methodologies, and the conclusions. But once this process has been carried out, once an expert consensus has been reached, we accept it and we move on.
The task of Christians is to not to promote an “alternative reality”. We don’t live in the Matrix. We don’t try to tell people that everything they believe is a lie, or that everything that they perceive as true is in fact false. Christians are not the guardians of some secret knowledge, and initiation into the Christian faith does not require people to reject their perception of reality. Historically speaking , that particular version of Christianity (known as Gnosticism) was rejected by the church, because such a worldview would diminish the significance of the incarnation. To say that the Word became flesh is to say that God entered into our human reality, our experience. What we see, what we feel, what we hear, what we taste is in fact real. Jesus embraced the human experience, he redeemed the human experience, and he invites all of humanity to live in this world – in this reality - in him and through him. The root of all false belief lies in a denial of that which is clearly seen. The Christian faith, on the other hand, is built upon an affirmation of what is seen and experienced in this world.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us. 1 Jn 1:1-3
The second lesson we need to learn stands in regard to our perception of the supernatural. I’m a Pentecostal Christian. I believe in miracles, in prophesies, divine healing, in casting out demons. So what I am promoting here is not a purely rationalistic faith that denies God’s ability intervene in the natural order. I believe in the supernatural. But going back to book of Jeremiah, I think its important that we get things in order. Jeremiah only called his vision “the word of the Lord” once it came true. A prophecy cannot be confirmed as coming from God until it comes to pass. A healing is not confirmed as a miracle until the medical facts support it. We can’t confirm that a demon has been cast out until an observable change has occurred in the life of the possessed person.
God doesn’t call us to deny that which is plainly seen and perceived. He calls us to us to rely upon our reason, and our perceptions to confirm his works in this world. To be a lover of truth is to be a lover of the facts, because it is through the “facts” that God demonstrates his power to humanity.
To conclude: If Christians are perceived as people who live in an “alternative reality” based on “alternative facts”, we will have no credibility in society. If we insist that the truth is what we say it is, rather than what people can clearly observe, then we are in trouble. The world is well aware that many of the people who have supported Donald Trump in his assertions of electoral fraud are Christians. And the world knows that many of those who broke into the Captiol are Christians. If I were to don a MAGA cap and go out preaching in the streets of London today, how do you think I would be received?
Our image as Christians is tarnished in the eyes of the world, and its time for us to rebuild our foundations.
I love the words of the Martin Smith’s song that proclaim “I want to be a history maker in this place. I want to be a speaker of truth to all mankind.” May the Lord restore his church, so that once again we may be seen as speakers of the truth - lovers of the truth - rather than perpetuators of myth.